A past and present that diverge, dovetail and prompt dialogue

Featuring more contemporary artists than ever before and mediums often regarded as crafts, the fifth iteration of the ‘Parallel Histories’ exhibition at the Sharjah Art Museum undoubtedly has a different emphasis from its predecessors. Suheyla Takesh, Curator of Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah, tells Artscoops why these shifts in focus are key to fuelling curiosity and generating welcome conversations among audiences.

Installation view of Barjeel Art Foundation’s exhibition 
Parallel Histories at the Sharjah Art Museum 
(20 September 2023 - ongoing)
Photograph by Amir Hazim

The exhibition series ‘Parallel Histories’ has set out to reflect the many ways in which artists in the Arab world have responded to socio-political events and the human condition. How have you adapted this latest iteration to keep pace with the region’s changing backdrop?

As curators, we recognised the magnitude of the themes we wanted to explore and conversations we wanted to start with Barjeel Art Foundation’s exhibitions at the Sharjah Art Museum, and, accordingly, have made a concerted effort to use the wing provided to us by the museum for long-term displays focused on significant moments and figures in modern Arab art history since the first iteration. By doing so, we’ve enabled audiences to make return visits to view seminal works, whether for pleasure or research, which we see as important, especially since not many institutions are able to offer these opportunities. 

‘Parallel Histories’ (2023/24) marks the fifth iteration of this exhibition, with each edition having been presented with a slightly different emphasis. Significantly, this edition has a sharper focus on juxtaposing the present and past, with a higher number of contemporary artists featured. Before, we displayed a small number of contemporary pieces as a means of presenting a dialogue, but we felt that increasing the number of current voices was an effective way of drawing parallels with the concerns expressed by artists in earlier exhibitions. My hope is that this approach prompts a new wave of conversations – something I would certainly see as a sign of its success.

Nazek Hamdi (Born 1926, Egypt—Died 2019, Cairo, Egypt). 
The Lotus Flower (The Lotus Girl),1955, 
oil on canvas, 70 × 50 cm. 
Image courtesy of Barjeel Art Foundation

What part does the title for ‘Parallel Histories’ play in relaying the messaging behind the exhibition to prospective audiences?

We know that parallels aren’t prescriptive and that’s something we regard as a positive. Visitors will notice things that pass us curators by, or have different interpretations of the works on display and we believe this helps to give the exhibition depth and richness, while also keeping it relevant. It’s also important to us to constantly look for new angles through which to view the collection, given that this is a series of exhibitions. Ahead of this iteration, one of the key themes we decided to focus on was a diversity in materiality, which includes extending our reach further into mediums often regarded as crafts, and looking at where they overlap and merge with fine art. We also wanted to explore the ways in which contemporary artists are influenced by the region’s past, such as how they are interpreting Islamic geometry and mathematics, for example, and what their work reveals about how they’ve been informed by these histories. We wanted to bring these questions to the forefront and fuel curiosity about them.

What has been the initial response to the exhibition from visitors since its opening in September? 

The feedback so far has been really positive, which is fantastic. I’m particularly happy about the high volume of returning visitors who have told us that this iteration feels different in many ways. While this is in part down to the substantial number of new pieces recently added to Barjeel Art Foundation’s collection, I think it is also due to the additional mediums we’ve chosen to feature this time, which include carpets, tapestry and ceramics, alongside plates in glass and sculptures in stone and wood. These works not only add variety but I believe also help to make the show feel a bit lighter, offering a different experience and sometimes providing new ways of sharing what can be difficult stories to tell, without taking anything away from the political and social context.

‘Parallel Histories’ features the work of several artists for the first time, many of whom have previously been overlooked. How did you choose which artists and artworks to feature in the exhibition? 

Making our shows gender-balanced has been one of our targets since 2019 so that’s been a driver of much of the rethinking in our acquisition strategies. During our research, we became aware of just how many women artists have been overlooked and, in turn, the high volume of material that remains undiscovered. I’m pleased to say that within the past five years, we’ve managed to add 115 new names to the collection and we’re not stopping there. Exciting finds include the works of Palestinian artist Zulfa Saadi, who played a significant role in the context of the region’s art history, having shown her work in a solo show in 1933 at the first National Arab Fair in Palestine – a real landmark event. Her family later fled to Damascus, where they settled, and because of that, she could only take several small-scale works with her, making her art very rare and difficult to locate. We were delighted that we could add four of her pieces to our collection and display two of them in this show. This is just one example of the rich stories that are out there if we make the time and effort to look for them.

Raafat Ballan (Born 1990, Al Swaida, Syria). 
The City Before it was Transformed, 2021, 
oil on canvas, 175 × 140 cm. 
Image courtesy of Barjeel Art Foundation

The exhibition is substantial in scale, featuring over 120 artworks. Which particular pieces stand out for you?

One piece that resonates with me is a large-scale painting by Raafat Ballan, a young Syrian artist, which references a historical photograph taken in Gaza between the 1940s and 1970s by the Armenian photographer Kegham Djeghalian, who lived in the city at that time. The painting is a highly layered work for so many reasons, as demonstrated by its title - ‘The City Before it was Transformed’ - and the subject of the photo, which is Djeghalian's family eating a dish called fatteh in Gaza, a city to which he relocated from Jerusalem, where a sizeable Armenian community could be found. Another that comes to mind is a work by the Egyptian artist Nazek Hamdi, whom we only discovered recently, which features a woman in a traditional sari, holding a lotus flower. The subject reminds us that Hamdi trained in India, but there is also a poignant aspect to the work since this flower is symbolic to the people of both Egypt and India, meaning the piece can speak to multiple audiences.

This exhibition opened not long after the most recent edition of the Sharjah Biennial came to an end. What works remain memorable from that earlier key event?

The entire biennial was memorable for many reasons, but one particular piece really resonated with me - a sound installation by Hajra Waheed, titled ‘Hum II’, featuring songs that have been central to anti-colonial social movements across continents. Sung by women, the songs were audible as you entered Waheed’s conical white structure and helped set the scene for what was for many a deeply meditative experience. Having been asked to remove their shoes before entering the installation, people were seen closing their eyes and often remaining inside for some time. I found the entire experience truly beautiful.

Installation view of the exhibition 
On This Land at Concrete 
Alserkal Avenue 
Dubai (19-26 November 2023)

What steps has Barjeel Art Foundation taken to put accessibility at the heart of its collection?

Since the foundation’s collection is very expansive, one way in which we’re strengthening accessibility is by making as much of it as possible available for viewing online, through continuously uploading new acquisitions to our website and our social media platforms. This allows viewers, many of whom wish to look at the works for research purposes, to explore them at their own pace and convenience. We also lend out works to other institutions, and to date, works from the collection have traveled to over 140 organisations globally. These steps are pivotal in supporting our aim of positioning regional art histories as an integral part of global modernism in the arts. We also extend our inclusivity drive to the art we acquire, making efforts to ensure that the collection encompasses works created by representatives of the many ethnic, linguistic and religious communities found in the Arab world, including but not limited to those with Kurdish, Amazigh, Circassian, Armenian, Turkic and Baha’i links, for instance.

What other projects does the Barjeel Art Foundation currently have in the pipeline?

We’ve just finished a large-scale exhibition, titled ‘On this Land’, featuring more than 100 artworks from and about Palestine from Barjeel Art Foundation’s collection, and historical photographs of Gaza from the digital archive of The Palestinian Museum in Birzeit, held at Concrete in Alserkal Avenue—a project done in collaboration with The Palestinian Museum and the Alserkal Arts Foundation. Despite being put together almost spontaneously and running for just one week, the exhibition was very meaningful for the UAE community, attracting around 1800 visitors on the opening night alone. We’re now renewing our focus on research and publishing projects, with a couple of new volumes in the pipeline.

‘Parallel Histories’ runs at the Sharjah Art Museum, Sharjah, until Spring 2024

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